Hutongs around Beijing were believed to be built during the Yuan Dynasty around 1274 AD after Kublai Khan choose Beijing (then known as Dadu) the capital. The word Hutong was derived from the Mongolian word ‘hottog’ meaning ‘water well’. Subsequently, dwelling flourished around these water wells. These constructions continued through subsequent dynasties. Amongst these dwelling was the present day Siheyuan or commonly known as quadrangular courtyard residences.
Today, they are walled building blocks through a maze of tree lined lanes. They have survived for over 800 years and therefore is a cultural heritage of Beijing. Having survived through these periods of uncertainty, after the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949 and more recently in the last two decades, many of the old hutongs were demolished and replaced with modern high rise buildings and apartments. It is a rapid demise of history and sadly the displacement of its people. Demolishing the hutong means the desecration of history and civilization? The hutongs told stories of the past, from one dynasty to another.
Several families lived in close proximity. Thus, enhancing family bonding. The relationships amongst people living in hutongs is much more connected that those living in modern Beijing. Some buildings are dilapidated yet gave comfort to the tenants. With policies, governing renovations and rebuilding, not all tenants are getting a good deal. For instance, proper plumbing and sanitation, there are several shared public toilets. Another is heating systems. They are still unavailable in certain residences. Hence, I could smell and see the burning of coal for heating this winter. This contributed to the already polluted Beijing air. I can see the people’s reluctance to leave the hutongs, although needing renovations and upgrades, they feel at home and a sense of community prevailed amongst the residences. It is a slow-paced lifestyle. A contrast from the din of the modern metropolis just a few hundred meters away. Men gathered to play cards and board games; kids played without a care in the world and the treacherous motor vehicles; doors half opened with goods for sale. The seller is nowhere to be seen. There is trust; vegetable stalls are spread out onto the narrow roads; meat sausages and corn cobs hung from window sills to dry in the cold air.
At some hutongs, a complete transformation, made for tourist! Bright lights and busy shops sold from handicrafts, bars, ornaments to eateries and fast food outlets. Foreign chain stores names had already been embraced here. These hutong streets were crowded with both local and foreign tourist. This included hutongs streets of Nanluogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷) (South Lugou Alley), Yandai Xiejie (烟袋斜街),(Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street), hutongs surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers and Sichahai and Behai Lake. Any side road off the modern main street like Wangfujing, would lead to several hutongs. However, the street activity of these not-so- touristy hutongs in winter is limited. Coming off Wanning Bridge in Sichahai, Mao’er Hutong (帽儿胡同) is an interesting alley. Several famous people came from here including Wan Rong, the last empress of China, wife of Emperor, Puyi. There is also a cat filled cafe of sorts. It was a little weird for me. All roads seemed to lead to Nanluogu Xiang. Doncheng district is a great area to discover hutongs either by walking or cycling. Alternatively, there are many willing pedicab tour operators. There is a great free walking tour operated by Beijing Walking. We unfortunately missed the tour.
Another great place is the area surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers. There will be pedicabs waiting for you. Climb up the towers to get a perceptive of the hutongs nearby and the not-so-distant skyscrapers on the horizon. It is a maze of narrow roads with bicycles and motorized bike wheezing past. Little open areas allow people to gather, meet and play games. There was even some exercise equipment at one outside the Bell Tower wall.
After visiting the Forbidden City, we walked along the near empty street along the moats, Beichizi Street. There are many side roads that led to hutongs, perhaps and interesting walk of discovery. However, during winter, many activities are subdued. Generally, the closer the buildings, the higher the status of the occupant, in relation to the palace, the Forbidden City. Another area we explored is just outside the west gate of Temple of Haven. As Chinese New Year was approaching, sales of mainly local produce were brisk. Generally, all areas along the perimeter of the Forbidden City is a good choice. Getting lost is great and is completely safe to wander.
Generally, doors are painted red with lion door knockers. Entrance door is guarded by carved stone, generally rounded or rectangular. They are intricately carved with different features, mainly animal figurines and symbols. These features told the story of its occupant. These ‘mendun’ are basically mounts to secure the door frames onto the buildings. Merely passing through, I did notice differences between doorways – the steps, roof tiles, varying width, characters on the ‘mendun’ and rooftops, amongst others. However, what it meant, I have no idea. I suppose in the old days, the better or bigger looking; more ornately designed perhaps meant higher up the political and social hierarchy. Size mattered!
New China has no place for Hutongs as the occupy prime real estate. With an expanding population and increased demand for accommodation, forced demolition of buildings and relocation of its residents are all to common even with regulations to keep these iconic hutongs. Hence, old Beijing is disappearing. Almost three quarter had been converted in modern and characterless buildings. It is unfortunate that tourism is keeping these historic dwellings from destruction. Historic relics in the form of structures or inscriptions may be lost forever.
At the Dongsi hutongs in the Dongcheng area, walking from the 14th alley to the fourth alley, a policeman stood at each entrance. Is it for safety or just keeping “trouble makers” subdued? On fourth Alley, nearby my courtyard hotel, one large building was almost abandoned except for a few residents. Posters on the wall seemed like eviction notice. Maybe, a renovation notice. I can’t be sure, but why a few residents had remained and police presence? Whether, in the name of preservation or retention of cultural values, I hope that these old-world charms of Beijing remained for all to experience and witness the layers of history written within the fabrics of the old buildings and its residences. The future however is, at least, murky.